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Discovering ancient wonders in New Mexico

New Mexico

5 Ancient Wonders of New Mexico

By: Laura Powell

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  • States:
    New Mexico

Imagine beautiful lands filled with mysteries of ancient peoples – not what you expect to find in the USA.

Traces of history are easier to find in the USA than you think, especially in New Mexico: People have been living here for over 12,000 years. Some early civilizations have left their marks in the form of cliff dwellings, timeworn buildings and petroglyphs. Many of these sites are now part of the federally protected U.S. National Park Service, so information is easy to find online. And the sites’ locations near Albuquerque and Santa Fe make them easy to explore.

Petroglyph National Monument

Located on the west side of Albuquerque, Petroglyph National Monument protects a variety of cultural and natural resources, including five volcanic cones, hundreds of archaeological sites and petroglyphs aplenty. It’s one of the largest petroglyph sites in North America, with about 25,000 designs and symbols carved into volcanic rocks. Most of the petroglyphs were created by early Spanish settlers and members of the Puebloan and other indigenous tribes who lived in the area roughly 400 to 700 years ago. The petroglyphs reflect cultural and religious practices of these groups, often playing a role in traditional ceremonies.

Drawings in Petroglyph National Monument date to ancient civilizations

Drawings in Petroglyph National Monument date to ancient civilizations
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Flickr/PaigeH

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Chaco Culture National Historical Park has the honor of being one of New Mexico’s three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, alongside Carlsbad Caverns National Park and Taos Pueblo. A three-hour drive northwest of Albuquerque, Chaco Culture National Historical Park is home to massive ancestral Puebloan structures, or great houses, dating from about 850 to 1150. The complicated mazes of interlinked rooms testify to a level of sophistication in engineering not seen anywhere else in the Southwest region of the USA at that time. You can explore the park by car, bicycle or on foot, and guided tours are offered from April through October. No visit to the park is complete without a little stargazing. Designated as one of only 12 International Dark Sky Parks by the International Dark-Sky Association, Chaco Culture park is one of the best places in the world to check out the constellations. Come for sunset and stay in the park for evening campfire talks and night sky programs.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
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Aztec Ruins National Monument

Speaking of astronomy, evidence suggests that ancestral Puebloan builders purposefully aligned the walls of their structures with the movement of the sun. You can see examples of this at Aztec Ruins National Monument, which was named by early settlers who mistakenly credited the Aztec Indians with building the structures. One of the most impressive sights at Aztec Ruins, which is included in Chaco Culture National Historical Park’s World Heritage designation, is the excavated great house, complete with at least 400 masonry rooms. You are free to follow ancient passageways, duck through doorways and wander through a reconstructed great kiva, a room once used for religious rituals. Ranger tours and talks are offered May through September, and cultural demonstrators showcase their work many weekends during the summer. Aztec Ruins is about 115 kilometers north of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, less than a three-hour drive from Albuquerque.

Crumbling stone walls at Aztec Ruins National Monument

Crumbling stone walls at Aztec Ruins National Monument
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U.S. National Park Service

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument in southwestern New Mexico, about 420 kilometers southwest of Albuquerque, offers a look at the cliff houses of the Ancestral Puebloan people who lived in the Mongollon region over 700 years ago. Five of the natural caves in a canyon cliff side within the park’s boundaries contain remnants of ancient dwellings – more than 40 rooms in all. You can explore the ancient digs on your own if you are willing to brave a somewhat steep, 1.6-kilometer trail. If you don’t want to retrace your steps on the way back, you can exit the dwelling by a wooden ladder of a dozen or so steps to get back on the trail.

Remnants of homes at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument

Remnants of homes at Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument
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Doc Johnny Bravo/Flickr

Bandelier National Monument

Majestic Bandelier National Monument is roughly a 70-kilometer drive northwest of Santa Fe. This park is a one-stop shop for ancient ruins: There are petroglyphs, pictographs, masonic homes and even several cavates – rooms carved from the cliffs. The landscape is equally diverse and astounding. If you prefer to hike between visiting the archaeological landmarks, you’ll see woodlands, desert grasslands, lush meadows, deep canyons and large, flat mesas.

Rooms carved into cliffs at Bandelier National Monument

Rooms carved into cliffs at Bandelier National Monument
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U.S. National Park Service
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